Shoulder Season: Aster Lake Backcountry Campground

Story and photos by Gryphon Black-Wallis

I found myself at the trailhead of the Upper Kananaskis Lakes’ loop one afternoon on an overcast autumn day. Last minute decisions had led to this locale and the plan was to hike along the upper lake before ascending towards Aster Lake, adjacent to an alpine campground where I planned to rest for the night. Light precipitation was expected overnight, but I had some warmer weather clothing and felt reasonably prepared.

While there is something exceptional in the solitude of a solo trip, it holds challenges not present when accompanied by partners – not least of which being the decision to continue or turn back where any proverbial fork occurs. Important things one might consider are enough food, water, and appropriate shelter. Shoulder season in the mountains tends toward the fickle and assumptions on weather are futile and potentially dangerous depending on the objective – another good reason for caution when making decisions while solo.

The days previous I had been feeling restless in the city; long summer days had since ended and casual mountain excursions had apparently as well. Undeterred, I casually started the 10 kilometres into camp at one in the afternoon, shouldering my pack and passing confused hikers just ending their laps around the lake. Hitting the fork at about four kilometres along the south side of Upper Kananaskis Lake, the trail continues left into the trees past Hidden Lake – less of a lake at the time and more of a muddy basin. Passing Hidden Lake, the trail ascends quite steeply along scree slopes before opening out onto the steppe above. A few more kilometres and the alpine meadows – at this time of year, fully covered with snow – open out before you with spectacular views back down the valley and of the surrounding peaks.

The evening light took on a peculiar quality as I crested the final rise before the lake, which was, of course, entirely frozen. Light snowfall had begun at this elevation and I was faced with a decision: would it be better to turn around and hike down the steeper slopes before they saw much snow and while I still had a little light and finish well into the dark back at the car, or wait out the night like I had planned and figure out the descent in the morning albeit with significantly more snowfall?

Choosing to stay, I made camp sheltered by some trees near the frozen lake, and pulled out my camp stove to cook a sensational packaged pasta meal. The moon rose and the evening light purpled through the cloud cover as night descended on my solitary spot high in the hills. I slept fitfully as the odd noise broke the quiet weight of a snowy night in the mountains. The first fingers of dawn light showed just after seven and, having probably slept a total of three or four hours all night, I rolled out of the tent, now quite snow-capped, and attempted breakfast. Right before sunrise is frequently the coldest it gets and, at temperatures around -10°C, my lightweight stove was overworked trying to boil a pot of water unsuccessfully. Skipping the planned oatmeal breakfast after trying some of it dry – it’s bad – I ate part of a Clif Bar and broke camp, starting the descent by about eight in the morning.

The descent proved interesting, as predicted, when the footprints I had made on the way in were nowhere to be found. Relying on my fold-out map and the downhill trend, I eventually picked my way back down to the obvious scree slope, finally spotting some of the tracks from the previous day. A wave of relief hit, releasing the tension I had been holding without quite realizing, having been so focused on the task at hand. Through the crux of the day, I cruised down the rest of the descent until just past Hidden Lake.

With a few hundred metres to the main trail, a practical highway back to the parking lot, I was moving quick, tension of the earlier morning gone. Then, movement on the trail ahead: a pair of moose. We eyed each other up and I could see that the pair had been presumably grazing in the area, which also happened to be the trail I was attempting to utilize. Without really thinking, I mentioned politely, “Hey man, I’m trying to get past.” My voice sounding terribly odd, maybe because I was talking to a moose, or maybe because I probably had not spoken for close to 24 hours at this point. To my surprise and relief, it worked; the pair of moose gave me another look and pushed off into the trees, possibly to seek the solitude I had also come out here to enjoy. An hour later, I was at the car and heading back into town. Some fresh snowfall had made the whole landscape appear very differently than the one I had pulled up to the previous day.

While possibly not for everyone, solo trips are a way to reset and reflect for me, and I always learn something about myself or the surrounding environment. These lessons generally feel profound at the time, but in reality are somewhat less so. For example, I reaffirmed the value of planning and being prepared as well as the smaller lessons of how bad dry oatmeal is – think cinnamon challenge – and how invaluable it is to be polite to the local wildlife.